After the chaos, carnage, and controversy of the last two stages, it’s safe to say that the entire Tour de France peloton was looking forward to the relatively innocuous 153 km stage from Cambrai to Reims on Wednesday. The overwhelming prediction was a bunch sprint, and that there was. First, let’s rewind to the beginning to tell this story properly.
The day’s break went inside the first 5 kilometers. Dmitri Champion (AG2R), Iban Mayoz (Footon), Nicolas Vogondy (BBox), Francis De Greef (Omega), and Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel) got away without too much fuss, and spent the next 140 kilometers doing the business as the Tour de France’s welcoming committee as the race headed straight for the town of Reims, just 140 km northeast of France, and in possession of arguably the greatest example of a gothic cathedral in the world.
…and fast forward to the fun part now. I’m going to pick 15 km as my arbitrary starting point. Let’s go…
Inside of 15k to go and HTC-Columbia is setting a strong pace at the front, making sure to dispatch the elusive break before the race gets down to business in Reims. With 8 kilometers to go, HTC-Columbia loses control of the front of the race as Cadel Evans’s BMC team takes over the front, but the speed is not high enough to string out the bunch on the roads on the outskirts of Reims.
The BMC control over the front of the field is only momentary though, as the race spreads side to side across the two-lane road. Cervelo has a go at the front, HTC restarts, but there’s just no control. The wide open countryside and lack of wind means that it’s just not possible to go fast enough.
The break continues their desperate pace-setting at the front of the race, eking out an effort it didn’t seem possible to muster after such a long day out front, but still, they press on. The camera switches from the rocking shoulders of the race to the automaton chase from the stoic faces of the speeding field.
As the roundabouts begin (there are nine in all in the closing kilometers), the field spreads out naturally as the field of almost 200 squeezes through the tiniest of openings. The wince inducing roundabouts are doing what the leading teams couldn’t: stretch out the aggressive and powerful peloton.
Roundabout #3 sees the break sounding the death knell. Alessandro Petacchi’s Lampre teammate takes care of the final gap between field and break, then eases off. That’s it though, after that, it’s all on HTC-Columbia. Former white jersey wearer, Tony Martin is on the front. The rider, nicknamed the Panzerwagen, wrenches his bars, shoulders, and hips doing everything to keep the pace high.
Inside 2k to go it looks like a three horse race: Petacchi, Cavendish, and Hushovd, who are all well placed. In the final moments though, Hondo puts in a huge effort and disrupts HTC’s train completely.
Cavendish’s leadout man, Mark Renshaw, is not to be denied by Hondo or the resulting surge. He plows through and pulls even with the Cervelo train. For a moment, it’s leadout man versus leadout man with their respective leaders on their wheels: Cervelo versus HTC. Renshaw, perfectly solid in his saddle, rides by the Cervelo choo choo and takes control of the front. Everything looks perfect for HTC as Renshaw starts his final push for the line out of the saddle, in full sprint.
Then it all falls apart.
Petacchi leaps from fourth wheel and leaves everyone in his wake with a powerful jump. Robbie McEwen is the first to come close to his wheel, but he has no answer for Petacchi. Cavendish is left gasping as the sprint rides right by him. He gives it a game effort, but sits up in the final meters – his misery continues.
Petacchi takes his bike length gap all the way to the line. Garmin’s Robbie Hunter and Julian Dean give a game effort at coming to terms with Ale-Jet, but it just wasn’t happening.
Unbelievable. Alessandro Petacchi comes in for his second bunch sprint victory at this year’s Tour de France, belying his 36 years. Petacchi’s sixth career Tour stage was also the 165th win of his career.
Finally, a mostly crash-free stage, no big problems, a huge sprint, and a non-controversial stage.
Stage 4 Results
1. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre)
2. Julian Dean (Garmin)
3. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)
4. Robbie McEwen (Katusha)
5. Robbie Hunter (Garmin)
General Classification After Four Stages
1. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
2. Geraint Thomas (Sky)
3. Cadel Evans (BMC)
4. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin)
5. Sylvain Chavanel (QuickStep)